Cities For All: An Interview with Angela Glover Blackwell

Sprawl overruns open space, jams up roads, degrades air quality, and leaves center cities without jobs and services. Policies that fight sprawl could bring new life to cities and suburbs, diversify our neighborhoods, and save the environment.
Angela Blackwell
photo courtesy of PolicyLink

Angela Glover Blackwell is founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a national organization working for economic and social equity. Her work has centered on revitalizing low-income communities and communities of color and public-interest law. She recently  co-authored Searching for the Uncommon Common Ground: New Dimensions on Race in America (2002, WW Norton & Co).


You've been doing policy work for many years on economic and social issues, especially those affecting communities of color. What is your vision of the sort of cities and neighborhoods you are trying to achieve?


For me, it comes down to community. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, at a time when segregation defined where you lived, where you went to school, pretty much everything about life. For African-American families such as my own, community was the scaffolding that allowed us to achieve our visions in a society where we were locked out of the mainstream. By building strong communities, we were able to create our own pathways to personal fulfillment.

Having that experience and watching communities change over time is what drives my work. I have worked to build mentoring programs in low-income communities to rebuild relationships between caring adults and children. I've worked to build relationships between faith institutions and pregnant women so that we could reduce infant mortality by making sure that the community rallies around pregnant women.

Community absolutely matters, and that understanding leads to ideas about the physical environment, the social environment, the spiritual environment that surrounds children and families and allows them to have the comfort of knowing that they're not alone and that they can rely on these structures to create fulfilling pathways.


What role does race play in these issues, and what will it take to undo persistent patterns of housing segregation?


Over the past 50 years, we have gotten to the point that where you live literally has become a proxy for opportunity. We have always had segregated neighborhoods. However, it used to be that within the city of Detroit or St. Louis or Cleveland or Philadelphia or Oakland or New York you could identify the communities that were black and poor, but the places with the good jobs weren't that far away. You could usually get there on a bus, and people could aspire to live in a community that they could see while remaining close to their churches, families, and old neighborhoods.

Sprawl took off during the 1950s. Federal housing policies made mortgages available to families who were moving to the suburbs but not to families who were living in black communities. Transportation dollars went to creating roads out to the suburbs and took funding away from transit in cities.

There were lots of policies that fueled sprawl—but it was also fueled by the Brown versus Board of Education decision in 1954, which said that segregated public education is unconstitutional.

Unfortunately, America missed an opportunity for greatness at that point. Rather than integrating the schools, people began to move in droves to the suburbs where they built new enclaves around schools that were, again, segregated. While we no longer had legal segregation, we continued??—and continue to this day—to have segregation based on housing patterns. Our development pattern is intertwined with our inability, or refusal, to deal effectively and productively with issues of race and inequality in America.

Those development patterns have taken on a life of their own, so people today move to the suburbs not to get away from black people but to find good schools, open space, and affordable housing. The absence of a commitment to full inclusion has become embedded. One form this takes is found in the many suburban communities that have exclusionary housing patterns. Houses must be built on lots of a certain size, or they must have a certain number of square feet, or two-car garages—all of which make housing very expensive. Prohibitions on in-law apartments (smaller housing units out back) and a lack of rental housing make it difficult for lower-income people to move into these neighborhoods. We still have a huge income and wealth gap in this country, and the people who are able to afford expensive houses are more likely to be white.

 This exclusionary housing pattern continues the pattern of segregation and inequality in America. For the country to fulfill the dream of democracy and inclusion, we have to consciously build in policies based on full inclusion.


How can we accomplish that?


There are many things that people are doing. One is to make sure that every community is a livable, healthy, and stable community.

Every community ought to have a supermarket, because without one, people rely on convenience stores and fast food restaurants where they don't get  fresh fruits and vegetables.

Every community should have parks and open space where children can play, where families can gather, where elderly people can get out, feel safe, and get exercise.

Every community should have high quality schools, with attractive school buildings that also function as community centers for adult education and after-school activities.

We need to make it possible for people to live near job opportunities. We also need to make sure that people, no matter where they live, can access opportunity; that means making sure that buses and streetcars and subway systems can get people from where they live to good jobs.

Here's an example of how to make a community livable. In San Diego, the Jacobs Family Foundation, in partnership with the residents in the Diamond neighborhoods, took a brownfield [an unused site that is contaminated or perceived to be contaminated] in the middle of the community and transformed it into a community destination point. A grocery store is the centerpiece of it, but it also has an open-air amphitheater where the community can share cultural events. It has places for local entrepreneurs to have businesses; it is adjacent to a transit stop so people outside the community can come there and shop.


It sounds like your proposals are modest ones for the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. Have you found that you are able to make common cause with other organizations and other political movements?

The proposals that we are talking about are modest for a country with the resources of the United States of America, and because they are modest, what we seek to do at PolicyLink is to embed the notion of full inclusion in everything we do. We call that equitable development, which means integrating the needs of people into investments.

So often, the big development projects have a lot of public dollars in them, and we want to make sure that public and private investments produce a double bottom line: economic return for investors and economic and social returns for people who live in communities.


These are challenging times, particularly with the sorts of policies coming out of Washington, DC. What makes you hopeful that the changes that you're talking about could actually happen?


These are challenging times, indeed, and the thing that worries me most is that Americans seem to have lost faith in government. A nation cannot be strong if the government is not responsive to the needs of the people. If the people don't have enough trust in government to invest in it, there cannot be a national community.

Having said that, the thing that makes me optimistic is that local government and civic leaders are beginning to realize that we have to build strong regional communities if we're going to compete in the global economy. The movement for equitable development, the smart growth movement, is a real ray of hope.

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